May 1981. Detective Bill Whitehead of the Jacksonville, North Carolina Police Department was a Marine veteran and an all-around nice guy with a wife and kids. He worked hard to earn less than $12,000 a year.
Whitehead had been working a case that took him into Jacksonville’s red light district. At the time, the area around the infamous Court Street was populated by bars, prostitutes and drugs—catering to the thousands of young Marines from nearby military bases. Whitehead had been lured to an area near there beneath a bridge on the pretense of meeting with an informant. That night he made a terrible, life-ending mistake in telling no one where he was going or the name of the person he planned to meet. When he failed to return home or show up for work, fellow officers began looking.
They found him. He’d been bound with his own handcuffs and dumped into the river to drown. The entire city went into mourning. Although the area had lost its share of law enforcement officers, Whitehead’s murder was particularly brutal and shocking.
Two detectives, the late Dennis Dinota and Mike Carney, both also Marine Corps vets, were assigned to track down Whitehead’s killers and bring them to justice. It took them two years of hard work, but they did it. Although the convictions and arrests of the perpetrators helped even the scales of justice, nothing could replace the loss that the department, the city and, most of all, Whitehead’s family had endured.
Years later, I attended my state’s justice academy. There I met a vice officer—one of the nicest guys imaginable—who was in one of my classes. Because it snowed (a fairly rare thing in our part of the country) the academy closed most of the classes, but let ours continue since it was a long course and we were halfway through. Even the instructor bunked on campus and, as a result, we all became good friends. About a year later I opened my newspaper to discover that the vice officer from my class had been shot to death by a drug dealer.
I have known other officers who have died in the line of duty, as well as many who had their lives prematurely cut short by conditions brought on by the stress of being a cop. It’s a dangerous and difficult job. My partner, who died of a heart attack while only in his early forties, left behind a wife and 11-year-old daughter. Although his name does not appear on any officer down list, I believe he was as much a victim of his years on the department as those directly killed in the line of duty. I miss him every single day of my life and always will.
Although the number of officers who die in the line of duty fluctuates from year to year, and law enforcement agencies are probably the most safety conscious they have ever been, we still lose too many in line of duty deaths like Bill Whitehead and my friend, the vice officer. As we memorialize these brave men and women, I’d also like to draw attention to those who lose their lives as my partner did.
Each year thousands of officers, present and former, die from ailments brought on or exacerbated by the job’s stress, lack of sleep, pressure and long hours. These names are not engraved anywhere and their deaths, often many years too soon, are separated from the tragedies of line of duty deaths. Every lost brother or sister counts. All members of the thin blue line deserve to be remembered for their sacrifice.
May all our brothers and sisters rest in peace.
A 12-year veteran of police work, Carole Moore has served in patrol, forensics, crime prevention and criminal investigations, and has extensive training in many law enforcement disciplines. She is the author of “The Last Place You’d Look: True Stories of Missing Persons and the People Who Search for Them” (Rowman & Littlefield, Spring 2011). She welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.Keep up with Moore online: www.carolemoore.comAmazon: www.amazon.com/-/e/B004APO40S